CARRYING THE TORCH Dacre Stoker.
When Dracula author Bram Stoker died in April of 1912, he left a number of papers and notes to his wife. Among them was a February, 1896 New York World article headlined, “VAMPIRES IN NEW ENGLAND, Dead Bodies Dug Up and Their Hearts Burned to Prevent Disease.”
“Recent ethnological research has disclosed something very extraordinary in Rhode Island,” it began. “It appears that the ancient vampire superstition still survives in that State, and within the last few years many people have been digging up the dead bodies of relatives for the purpose of burning their hearts.”
The article refers to a scare that, while vague in its exact details, likely includes the story of Mercy Brown. (For newbies, that legend involves a father in Exeter in the early 1890s who was desperate to save his son from the “consumption” that had already claimed his wife and two daughters. With local superstition as his guide, he exhumed his recently deceased daughter, Mercy, removed her heart, burned it, and then fed the ashes in a tincture to his ailing son to stave off the illness. The son died anyway.) But while the Mercy Brown legend is familiar to scores of Rhode Islanders who have heard its details rasped out by a friend or sibling with a lowered force, contorted face, and a flashlight below their chin, the role of the story and other local 19th-century vampiric episodes in the creation of Stoker’s seminal vampire novel is less familiar.
Bram Stoker was a lover of America, his great grandnephew Dacre — who lives in South Carolina and tours the world delivering “Stoker on Stoker” lectures — explains. And, when the author read that 1896 World article, which described Rhode Island as a place where, “Not merely out-of-the-way agricultural folk, but the more intelligent people of the urban communities are strong in their belief in vampirism,” “I think this sort of hit him, and he said, ‘Wow! Right here in the paper, this is the effect I want,’” Dacre says. The connection between the “frightful superstition. . . said to prevail in all of the isolated districts in Southern Rhode Island,” described in the World and his great uncle’s famous work is “very strong,” he says.
Stoker will travel to Rhode Island next week to explain more about this Dracula-Rhody connection to audiences at the Columbus Theater in Providence and the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport. But that’s only half of those evenings’ billing. The other half is a new documentary by Alec Asten, a Rhody-raised filmmaker who previously made films ranging from Army Ranger recruitment TV spots to music videos for local country crooning boy-wonder, Billy Gilman.
HORRORS! A scene from The Tillinghast Nightmare.
The film is called The Tillinghast Nightmare and, it was made with the help of a corps of local experts (among them the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Morgan Grefe and renowned local folklorist and Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires author, Michael Bell); backing from grants by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and the RI Council for the Humanities; and a successful 2011 Kickstarter campaign in which Asten told viewers, “Believe it or not, New England was a haven for the undead in the 18th and 19th centuries.”